/ 16 July 2015

State’s new propaganda plan to hurt media budgets

The state plans to slash government advertising in the media and establish its own TV channel.
The state plans to slash government advertising in the media and establish its own TV channel.

President Jacob Zuma’s administration has a new propaganda plan that includes establishing a government TV news channel and copying the Democratic Alliance’s tactics in dealing with newspapers considered hostile.

The state’s plan includes slashing government advertising to media perceived as anti-government, pushing the SABC to tell more government news and channel more advertising to state media entities.

These are among the proposals of a national communications task team (NCTT) established last year by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi.

The NCTT began its work a year ago. Two task team members the Mail & Guardian spoke to estimated the NCTT cost between R2-million to R5-million to complete its work.

The NCTT notes in its report, dated July 10 and leaked to the M&G this week, “the ANC government might take … courage from what the DA has done in the Western Cape, where they decided to cut ties with the Cape Times for they deemed it was not adding value to their communication strategies”.

“The ANC-led government should have taken such a bold move long ago,” the report says. Ironically, the idea that government should copy the DA provincial government on the Cape Times matter is contrary to Muthambi’s publicly stated opinion. 

Angry reaction
She reacted with anger to the Western Cape government’s decision to stop subscribing to the Cape Times and accused the provincial administration of damaging media freedom.

“The Western Cape provincial government trampled on this hard-won freedom by dictating which media may and may not be consumed.

“They implemented a crude form of censorship and removed the freedom to choose from provincial department heads.”

The ANC also reacted angrily, accusing Premier Helen Zille’s government of attacking press freedom.

The report says the national government is complicit in its own bad publicity because of how it managed its advertising spend. An ideal situation would link print media adverts “that are somewhat seamless with a particular storyline in the main news section”.

“This will never be allowed in the mainstream media and it would be stigmatised as pushing ANC government propaganda,” the report states.

Advertising spend limits
If the Cabinet accepts and executes the NCTT’s recommendations, there will be a new policy to limit government departments’ advertisements in newspapers deemed to be short-changing the state in their reporting.

The report said cutting down advertising was “only one way to permanently fix the problem. But it will need boldness, serious political resolve and a radical transformation mind-set. The solution cannot take a ‘quick fix’ and an unco-ordinated approach.”

It said the “out of context and seemingly ad hoc placements of government adverts are a serious waste of money and only provide poor value to the reader.”

The government spends about R1-billion on advertising in mainstream media, according to a task team member. This includes provincial and local government. “GCIS [Government Communication Information System] spent R241-million in the previous financial year,” the task team member said.

The M&G was told that this means “there must be a habit of using the muscle of government to support information dissemination projects. If we are going to spend R1-million on the M&G we should encourage the newspaper to cover stories at their own editorial initiative that educate the public.”

Community media
For now, government will commit a minimum of 30% of its advertising spend to community media and advertising jobs in the free government newspaper Vuk’uzenzele as well as government’s online radio station Ubuntu Radio. This could be implemented from as early as August.

But a task team member said job advertisements would not be exclusive to government media and a smaller portion might still appear in mainstream newspapers. “It depends on who you are looking for and is that person reading Vuk’uzenzele?”

Though this task team report does not name media houses that would lose out, the M&G reported last December that the Sunday Times, M&G and City Press are under threat of advertising starvation amid unhappiness from government that the papers vilify the ANC-led government, failing to report the positives.

Brand SA, which hosted the national communications task team, is likely to see its board decimated. (Frederik Lerneryd)

Some of these recommendations have already been taken to heart by Muthambi. In an SABC interview two weeks ago, she said government would slash its advertising budget to mainstream newspapers by more than 40%. This, she said, would save the state about R100-million a year.

“We are going to use our own platforms to communicate our own messages. I think we have got enough platforms and if you check, even other countries do what we are going to do now,” she told the SABC.

Judge, not journalist
Among other recommendations by the NCTT is that the press ombudsman should be a retired judge and not a former journalist. Currently a retired judge chairs the appeals tribunal.

“The press ombudsman must be an independent person to re-establish and releverage the credibility of that office,” the task team state.

It also wants the curriculum of journalism and media studies in tertiary institutions to be “improved” to “reflect a new paradigm of a transformed media landscape”.

“This will lay a basis in the future for the change in adversarial coverage towards government hopefully being replaced by a fair and balanced reporting”, the report states.

It recommends that Vuk’uzenzele, which appears monthly, become a weekly publication and that its print run be increased. The current print run could not be established. The aim is to publish more of government careers as an insert in Vuk’uzenzele and some community newspapers. The state would also establish a “dynamic digital publication” of Vuk’uzenzele that would deliver news to mobile phones and email among others.

The recommendations include encouraging all provinces to have customised versions of Vuk’uzenzele.

TV channel
To speedily deliver messages to citizens, the task team suggested that the state owns a TV channel and explores a mobile TV channel. The team also suggests that “each province gets its own channel”.

Brand South Africa, which hosted the task team and funded much of its work, is likely to see its board reduced to a maximum of nine members from the current 28.

Brand SA pulled the plug on the task team after complaining Muthambi failed to keep her promise of reimbursing the agency. The M&G reported in March that Brand SA claimed more than R1-million from the ministry.

The task team report said, by withdrawing its financial support, Brand SA prevented some committees from completing their work satisfactorily.

The task team wants Brand SA to “form partnerships with entities such as SABC and should not have to pay for airtime to promote programmes of national importance”.

“More aggressive strategy”
The task team also expects the SABC to “have a more aggressive strategy” to communicate government policy. To boost the SABC’s finances, the broadcasting subcommittee of the NCTT recommended the collection of TV licence fees be improved and “pay TV platforms be used to collect the licence fees, with a recommendation of 7% administration fee by the external collector”.

The subcommittee also proposed an introduction of a levy on advertising – to be determined by the task team and Advertising Agency Board – which will be used to develop the SABC’s infrastructure and content build-up. The SABC has on several occasions relied on government’s financial bailouts to survive.

To improve government communications, Muthambi’s department has been urged to “develop a compulsory training programme for Cabinet, senior civil servants for government and communicators”.

The research agenda subcommittee of the task team, which was tasked with exploring the development of a government war room to deal with crisis communication among others, recommended that the state establish a fully fledged “research unit or division” by building on what the GCIS already has.

Muthambi is expected to launch a white paper process to formalise the report’s recommendations “so that they find expression in various pieces of legislation that governs the communications space”.

The communications task team was chaired by Nomsa Chabeli, marketing director at SuperSport, while chairperson of Black Business Executive Circle Hlengani Mathebula was her deputy. Seasoned communicator Onkgopotse “JJ” Tabane was the convenor and head of the task team’s secretariat.

Muthambi’s spokesperson Mishack Molakeng said the minister has received the report and is currently studying its contents and recommendations and only once she is done will share it with the public. – Additional reporting by Qaanitah Hunter

Communication breakdown

The Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), an agency that prides itself on being “the pulse of communication excellence in government”, refused to co-operate with Communications Minister Faith Muthambi’s national communications task team, convened to investigate the state’s communication strategy.

A final task team report submitted to Muthambi last Sunday recommends that an investigation be undertaken to establish “what motivated the stance of GCIS on this matter”.

The Mail & Guardian reported in February that senior GCIS managers refused to account to Muthambi. Some preferred to report to Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, who chairs the interministerial committee on communication and publicity. Muthambi’s spokesperson denied the allegations.

In the task team report, however, the state and media relations subcommittee says that the acting chief executive of GCIS at the time, Phumla Williams, refused to entertain Muthambi’s task team.

“The chairperson of the workstream [Tshilidzi Ratshitanga] held a conference call with [the] then chief executive of GCIS, Williams, who informed him GCIS would never co-operate with [the communications task team’s] work,” the report says. “Several attempts to organise workshops with GCIS proved this true.”

Communications Minister Faith Muthambi. (David Harrison, M&G)

Williams refused to answer questions, referring the M&G to GCIS director general Donald Diphoko, who could not be reached for comment.

“Without a conversation with the GCIS, the work of the state and media relations workstream proved futile: GCIS is the custodian of the government communications and any suggestion about effecting changes to the structures, form and strategic thrust of government communications would have had to take into account input from the GCIS,” the report says. The GCIS’s attitude “effectively nullified the work of the workstream and, by extension, the whole [task team]”.

In addition to the headache caused by the GCIS’s refusal to work with the task team, the report says the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) also refused to co-operate and was only able to meet once with the team. “There were also attempts by the [task team] secretariat to set up meetings with Sanef, which also refused to attend such meetings,” the report said.

A meeting with Sanef was held in December; it managed to lay “a basis for follow-up work that can be done with Sanef”.

Sanef chairperson Mpumelelo Mkhabela denied the allegation.

“At its inception, Sanef was represented by [former Star editor] Makhudu Sefara, who was my deputy [at the time]. There were concerns raised; it can’t be said we refused to co-operate,” he said, adding that Sanef co-operates with the government in many forums.

Muthambi’s spokesperson, Mishack Molakeng, said the minister “enjoys a good relationship with GCIS; targets are being met and GCIS is now able to deliver on its mandate”. – Mmanaledi Mataboge & Qaanitah Hunter

Proper communication can patch up SA’s problems

Service delivery protests, common across South Africa, are an indication that there is a breakdown in communication between the government and citizens.

This is according to a document mapping out a communication strategy for government. The document is part of the national communications task team’s work done over a year. It will be presented to Cabinet for adoption. The task team was set up by Communications Minister Faith Muthambi to investigate improving government’s communication.

The team – comprising communications and strategy experts – concluded that those who make decisions don’t really know what is happening at ground level. “Community-based assessments and local intelligence do not filter up the decision-making chain,” the report says.

What worsens things is the slow response from government when citizens raise concerns.

When the state does eventually communicate with them, its response is not effective because government has not adapted to an evolving social media landscape, according to the report.

While the ANC-led government has punted government imbizos as an efficient way to communicate with citizens, the task team notes this still failed to produce the desired results.

Face time with people needs to be merged with how communication officials and frontline staff do their work.

The team has called for an end to the one-size-fits-all response that government is currently using.

“When consulting with communities it is advisable to spend time in the community affected in advance, to not only deal with security and logistical issues in preparation for an imbizo or other communication intervention … but also to build trust and understanding with the people,” the report says.

The team recommends that government invest more time in gathering information or grass-roots intelligence in communities. This means government officials would know what the specific problems of a community are before communicating with the affected people. In practice, this would call for preparatory research in a specific community as far as the household level.

The task team says there are major gaps between analysis of information gathered through communities and government fieldworkers and there must be improved co-ordination.

“Deepen the programme of household profiling to enable ward-based interventions … and focus efforts on ‘hot spot’ areas [for example], places where household poverty is high, youth unemployment [is] high, crime is high, etcetera.”

At the same time, the task team recommends that there be “service blitzes” where government not only listens to citizens, but also responds to their concerns.

The task team says that “political championing” as well as approval for “intergovernmental advocacy” is needed if this strategy is to be successful.

The team wants government communicators to be trained specifically in how to work with communities, perhaps to avoid a frequent situation where government response – or lack thereof – becomes a catalyst for further protests. – Qaanitah Hunter & Mmanaledi Mataboge